City considers staff cuts

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 8, 2003

The city council's search for ways to save money has vulnerable city agencies preparing for the worst while trying to figure out their budgets for the remainder of this year and the next.

Agencies such as the police and fire department are considered more essential and will probably be cut less than organizations not related to public safety or health. This means that groups such as the streets department and parks and recreation would have to absorb a larger share.

"(The streets department) is one of the bigger departments," City Administrator Pat McGarvey said. "You can't keep taking all the big departments and saying, 'not that one, not that one, not that one.'"

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Cuts to the streets department have been a part of both budget proposals discussed by the city council. The Feb. 28 proposal suggested that six employees be laid off. A union clause says that if lay-offs occur, employees hired most recently would go first. Mayor Bonnie Rietz and city council members would like to find ways to cut funds without having to do that.

"We're looking at incentives for people to retire early," Rietz said. "That's a much better way to go. Hopefully we'll have staff that will volunteer."

McGarvey is working on an early-retirement package that, if implemented, would possibly prevent employees from being fired.

Another proposed cut to the streets department is a redistribution of $50,000 raised from a gas tax. That money would move from a fund for new streets to a fund for street repairs.

Either way, the streets budget is going to suffer. McGarvey said that there will likely be less money for asphalt, concrete and other materials.

Larry Dolphin, director/naturalist at the J.C. Hormel Nature Center, part of the Parks and Recreation Department, knows that an educational and recreational facility such as his is extremely vulnerable. He is bracing for cuts by trying to increase revenue. The Friends of the Hormel Nature Center held an emergency meeting on Feb. 27 to come up with ways to bring in money. They are tentatively planning a dinner and silent auction to take place some time this fall.

A walkathon, scheduled for April 26, will be another source of income for the center.

But Dolphin is afraid that fund-raisers will not be enough.

"I am concerned about possibly losing the nature center assistant position," he said. "If we lose that, I'm it, and I spend 60 percent of my time teaching."

That would mean an empty building during most of the day.

Dolphin is working on other ways to off-set costs. An increase in student fees, rental fees for the Ruby Rupner Auditorium and bus tour fees are all options.

"These are reasonable increases," Dolphin said. "We haven't increased the student fee for about nine years."

Because of the impact these decisions would likely have, the city will probably wait to make most of the cuts until the legislature comes up with a final budget.

"I think that when it comes to city layoffs or city retirements, we don't need to pull the trigger on that until the legislature is done," McGarvey said.

Matt Merritt can be reached at 434-2214 or by e-mail at